My Master's thesis in art-history was about the artist Bill Viola and Zen. Looking at Bill Violas art work for some years there always was... something. I didn't know what it was back then, but later through my own meditation experience and knowledge about Buddhism it became more clear. Even while the spiritual aspect of Violas work is well discussed in the science literature, most art-historians encounter his work from a Christianity kind of perspective. What is ok but not enough. Most of the European Western art that we discussed at the University was based on Christianity. But in Violas case – and as I know now in the case of many other contemporary artists – looking at Buddhism and especially Zen can enlighten the work of many artist which are connected with this Eastern spirituality. Bill Viola will not be the subject for today's article instead I would like to show another artist who maybe doesn't know Zen, but who made a piece that connects very well with Zen.
It is a photo called "Pine tree on the Corner" by artist Jeff Wall (transparency in lightbox, 1990, 119 x 149cm, photographed in Vancouver Canada). The photo shows alarge tree in the frontyard of a house at the corner of the street. A quiet impressive kind of tree that can hardly be overseen, right?
So what is it that connects that photo with Zen? Some Zen students maybe already understand: in the Zen tradition there are kongans (click if you need to know more) and mostly these kongans ("public cases") are telling us stories about a dialog between an ancient Zen Master and his student were mostly the student has a question and the teacher is answering in a way that the student can have a direct experience.
Kongans are not riddles or something that can be figured out with thinking - it is pointing back to the mind of the questioner. So every Zen student knows this famous kongan:
Mumonkan (case 37): A monk asked Zen Master Jōshū: “Why did Bodhidharma came from the West?”. Jōshū answered “The tree in the courtyard”.
For those who doesn't know the tradition little explanation is maybe necessary: Bodhidharma is the founder of the Zen school of Buddhism. He was a meditation monk who came from India (in the West) to China (in the East). So the question asked by this monk means kind of "Why did happen what did happen?" or "What is the meaning of all this?" or"What is the truth?". The answer of the Zen Master just points to this very moment, what is truth. This tree can hardly be overseen. If you have any thinking about what is the truth (because maybe you studied philosophy so long that you already forgot how simple it is) ... then the tree will help you and becomes your teacher. If Jeff Wall would be asked this kongan he might already understand: yes, the tree in the frontyard! No space for any useless speculation, interpretation or conceptual thinking.
Telling this here occurred to me just because we have currently an exhibition of Jeff Wall going on in Dresden in the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Many years ago I saw Jeff Wall's "Pine tree on the Corner" in an exhibition in Dresden. This time I missed it.